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Beginner to modular. Looking for advice re: DIY
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Author Beginner to modular. Looking for advice re: DIY
Blingley
So, I have been working with electronic music, and I'm studying Musicology. So I have an excuse to want a modular setup, and since I have at least some disposable income, I feel like I should indulge myself.

That being said, said disposable income is still quite limited. I am, after all, an university student. We're not exactly known for swimming in money. What I seem to have in abundance currently is time. Such, I am looking at the cheaper options that require soldering/assembly. More experience with electronics projects is just bonus, and I might be able to document the build process for some extra credits. And probably looks good on portfolio/resume. I just have a few worries.

What I am particularly looking at is the PAiA-line - It does seem really affordable, and it seems the frac-format has quite enough options. The list of questions regarding that:

A: Has anyone here tried their hand on that. How hard was the assembly? I have time, and it wouldn't be my first electronics project, but I'm not particularly experienced, either. I found Unease Article about building it, but would like a second opinion if possible.
B: Sound quality. A lot of the price range is no doubt about the DIY-kit-aspect. I'm sure a part of it is also sound quality, especially compared to the more expensive 5U-format. Are there good audio demos out there?
C: Other options? I posted this in the general discussion for a reason. My source of research is primarily the SOS-article on modulars. It's 4 years old, so I don't think miracles have happened in that time, but are you aware of any other good DIY-kits for modulars? I am not specific on the format. I just want a decent-quality modular for cheap that I can later expand on.
D: If I do decide to go with the PAiA, I feel like Bananafying it would be a good option best done right away. There are threads on this topic in the Frac-forum, but I would like to see a cost estimate, and if someone has experience with this+PAiA in particular, I'd love to hear them.

Anything in particular I should be aware of, other than the fact that I am descending down a bottomless pit of eternal gear-lust?
sduck
Welcome! Get yourself over to the Music Tech DIY forum, you'll find a ton of info there.

I too started with a few paia kits, about when the current 9700 kits first came out. My advice would be to not bother with them - the quality is subpar in several regards, the builds are not well documented (at least they weren't then) and they were a bit too complicated to put together compared to the end result. Instead I'd advise going straight to the next step up - Blacet kits, which are the same format, but much better quality in all aspects, and the price is still right.

Also, take a look around in the Music Tech DIY forum - a lot has happened since that SOS article - the euro DIY scene has blown up. And while there still isn't any one large product line of kits like the blacet ones or the old motm ones I ended up building tons of, there are dozens of worthy euro projects available currently, enough to keep you busy for some time.

Also, check out Bridechamber.com, synthcube.com, elby.com, and perhaps others will recommend some other good resources.
Blingley
sduck wrote:
Welcome! Get yourself over to the Music Tech DIY forum, you'll find a ton of info there.

Also, check out Bridechamber.com, synthcube.com, elby.com, and perhaps others will recommend some other good resources.


Cheers. I'll try to read as much as I can. More information is always the better.

sduck wrote:
I too started with a few paia kits, about when the current 9700 kits first came out. My advice would be to not bother with them - the quality is subpar in several regards, the builds are not well documented (at least they weren't then) and they were a bit too complicated to put together compared to the end result. Instead I'd advise going straight to the next step up - Blacet kits, which are the same format, but much better quality in all aspects, and the price is still right.


This was one of the things I was afraid could matter. The Blacet kits are considerably more expensive, though - at least the oscillator.

PAiA Oscillator - $110/$141: Also has its' own A/R envelope.
Blacet Oscillator - $275: No extras.

The Blacet filters, on the other hand, do not seem that much more expensive than the PAiA ones. Was the build quality on all the PAiA parts bad? If the filter is the main culprit, I could mix/match. If they're all bad, well, I probably shouldn't bother. I suppose one gets what one pays for, in this as well as elsewhere.

I was trying to budget for around 500€ ($675). At least less than 700€ ($950). The basic PAiA setup costs ~400€, so that does leave room for additions/replacements. I could also wait a while to accumulate more money if it's necessary.

sduck wrote:
Also, take a look around in the Music Tech DIY forum - a lot has happened since that SOS article - the euro DIY scene has blown up. And while there still isn't any one large product line of kits like the blacet ones or the old motm ones I ended up building tons of, there are dozens of worthy euro projects available currently, enough to keep you busy for some time.


Allright. I'll look into that. The goal here is to get a basic setup that can make sounds that I can then expand.

Thanks for responding.
construct09
You,re not gonna get much for $1000 and I,m talking 2nd hand frac or euro format
pre55ure
There are a number of nice DIY oscillators available in euro format for far less than $275.

I would second what others here have said. Go hang out in the DIY forum for a bit as there are always awesome projects popping up in there.
If you are in the US, synthcube stocks a lot of DIY projects and if in the UK Thonk also stocks a lot of DIY projects.

I'm not sure if my numbers are way off because I have built up a fair stock of DIY supplies, but I feel like I could very easily build a very capable Euro format modular for less than $950.

Some projects to look for-
Thomas Henry 4046 or 555 oscillators (both runs by Fonik)
Actually all the PCB/panel runs by Fonik have been excellent.

Negativespace has created a number of very useful utility modules and has a new filter in the works.

FCUK (Frequency central UK) has a bunch of good euro clones of the roland 100 series. Also has a good low cost power supply.

Hexinverter also has a bunch of really cool modules, though not really synth "basics". (sequencers, drum voices, noise modules, etc...)

After you get a little experience theres always the CGS for euro series. I believe that clarke68 still has a few panels available, and I think synthcube is stocking some of these as well.
pugix
I also recommend Blacet kits. I'm surprised to see that the VCO is not offered in kit form anymore. But it is a big build. I converted a VCO2100 into 5U a decade ago. (Sold it and regretted that later.) The VCO2100 is one of the higher quality standard VCOs out there. It tracks 1V/octave extremely well. And it DOES have extras: a VC waveform output that has a unique sound, and a +/- octave function that is adjusted with trim pots for accuracy. I wired the octave function to a panel switch.

Despite the VCO not being in kit form, I think Blacet is one of the best values for synth DIY. They can also be 'bananafied' but this loses the jack normal connections that are often used on Blacet panels.
rjungemann
I would not worry so much about sound quality. Many kits use 1% resistors and other components which used to be expensive but are now commonplace. As long as the solder joints are good enough (no bridges, etc.), and in certain cases you use matched components, DIY modules that you make should readily hold their own against most store-bought modules and in many cases surpass vintage synths in terms of tracking, etc.

I just built 4 handmade guitar pedals and they are all effectively noiseless, and the Rat clone I built is my favorite pedal I own. Currently I'm trying to build a dual Korg MS-20 filter clone from scratch.

I only started 2 months ago and I'm no genius, so DIY is totally doable even with little or no prior knowledge as long as you are patient.
Blingley
construct09 wrote:
You,re not gonna get much for $1000 and I,m talking 2nd hand frac or euro format


I understand this. Everyone, and every project, has to start somewhere. Expandability is the strength of modular, after all. I get that I won't get to tap too much into the synergy/weirdroutings area with a basic setup, but time for that will come.

pre55ure wrote:
I would second what others here have said. Go hang out in the DIY forum for a bit as there are always awesome projects popping up in there.
If you are in the US, synthcube stocks a lot of DIY projects and if in the UK Thonk also stocks a lot of DIY projects.


Finland, actually. Thankfully, ordering things in the internet-age isn't too much of a hassle.

pre55ure wrote:
There are a number of nice DIY oscillators available in euro format for far less than $275.

I'm not sure if my numbers are way off because I have built up a fair stock of DIY supplies, but I feel like I could very easily build a very capable Euro format modular for less than $950.


You would advice for Eurorack as the format, then? As I said, I don't really know much about companies/sources regarding modular synthesis. What kind of a setup would you recommend for a bare-bones startup?

At least on ModularGrid, the list for Eurorack modules is an eternally long bottomless pit. So at least there's to choose from. ModularGrid doesn't do a particularly good job at noting what can be DIY'd, though.

pre55ure wrote:
Some projects to look for:


Thanks for the list. Things like that are very helpful, I'll look into the projects. As long as the PCBs are available and the parts can be found, I figure I can use Schaeffer for panels.

pugix wrote:
Despite the VCO not being in kit form, I think Blacet is one of the best values for synth DIY. They can also be 'bananafied' but this loses the jack normal connections that are often used on Blacet panels.


Blacet does seem to be highly regarded in terms of quality, and most modules are quite affordable.

Thank you all for your responses. Quite a warm and helpful welcome. Has given me a lot to think about and things to read. You've certainly made a subject that might seem intimidating much easier to approach.
e-grad
pugix wrote:
I also recommend Blacet kits. [...] The VCO2100 is one of the higher quality standard VCOs out there. It tracks 1V/octave extremely well. And it DOES have extras: a VC waveform output that has a unique sound, and a +/- octave function that is adjusted with trim pots for accuracy. [...] I think Blacet is one of the best values for synth DIY.


So true!
tojpeters
Music From Outer Space. Well documented. Take a look at the sound lab ultimate (not for your first build).
felixer
Blingley wrote:
As long as the PCBs are available and the parts can be found, I figure I can use Schaeffer for panels

be carefull here and do draw up a list of parts you need. pots, switches, knobs, frontpanel add up to quite a bit. diy isn't always cheaper .... there is a lot of used stuff floating around (check the 'for sale' section) and esp in eurorack you can get a decent basic system for a reasonable amount ...
esp analog osc are tricky to get really right (with good tracking/temp stability). no wonder blacet doesn't sell those as a kit ...
doepfer offers the diy synth: prebuilt pcb, you add psu/pots/panel etc. that might be a good way to get started.

take your time and look around. so many modules ... what direction do you want to go? noise/experimental/ambient/dance would all require a different sort of setup.
Blingley
tojpeters wrote:
Music From Outer Space. Well documented. Take a look at the sound lab ultimate (not for your first build).


These do look interesting. Definitely not first builds, though. The expander for the ultimate is quite interesting on its' own right, the guitar examples are great.

felixer wrote:
Blingley wrote:
As long as the PCBs are available and the parts can be found, I figure I can use Schaeffer for panels

be carefull here and do draw up a list of parts you need. pots, switches, knobs, frontpanel add up to quite a bit. diy isn't always cheaper .....


Yeah, I set up an excel (Or more precisely, the Open Office version.) document with each part, costs of said parts from a few different suppliers, and amount of parts needed for some planned modules. Should give me a pretty good estimate.

felixer wrote:
doepfer offers the diy synth: prebuilt pcb, you add psu/pots/panel etc. that might be a good way to get started.


That does seem.. Quite affordable. $120 for the PCB with the tempco.

felixer wrote:
take your time and look around. so many modules ...


Oh yes, I'm brilliant at postponing actual decisions. At times too much so. I'll look into used gear as well.

felixer wrote:
what direction do you want to go? noise/experimental/ambient/dance would all require a different sort of setup.


See: Blingley - I just like Magnets (Name your price, accepts zero.) for my first album.

I'm looking to start with a basic setup that can do simple synth sounds. I'm sure I have use for weird bleepbloops and drones as well, but time for those can come later. I'm mostly looking to sequence through MIDI from my computer/keyboard.
felixer
Blingley wrote:
I'm looking to start with a basic setup that can do simple synth sounds. I'm sure I have use for weird bleepbloops and drones as well, but time for those can come later. I'm mostly looking to sequence through MIDI from my computer/keyboard.

listening to your music: you already have some sound sources. so you could start with modifying those with modular gear: filters/shapers/folders/ringmod/vca-choppers etc. something simple as flight-of-harmony's plague bearer could fit right in there ... you'll need some preamp to get line/0dB/1V to modular/+20dB/5V but that would be easy to diy with simple opamp like TL074.

in fact i find 'weird bleepbloops' the easiest/cheapest to make. for tuppence+patience you can make 'bent toys'. add some vactrols in strategic places and you can have voltage control. no precision but far-out sounds that would be hard to do on an 'official' modular.


ok, so you'll need a midi/usb interface if you want to play precise pitches on your vco's. this is the more expensive bit ... good tracking and clean sine cost money. intellijel dixie is nice in those respects but good-ol' a110 works too!

modular is all about patching/combining things. no need to stop with the modules in your rack: everything but the kitchensink can be used as long as it has a cable/plug Mr. Green
be sure to get a good psu. pref lineair, not switching ....

have fun thumbs up
joshuagoran
I think Euro is a great way to start, since there are so many well supported options you can get started easily. Something like HexInverter's dotNET or other interpretation of 4U would open you up to much more other projects which can be difficult to fit in 3U/Euro.

Also, Euro is nice since you can pick up basic modules from Doepfer or similar to get started so you have something to use with your DIY stuff. I have a small half DIY/half bought Euro system and am constantly adding to the DIY end of it, but haven't bought any since my initial set.

I personally use a cheap switching PSU with a Tiptop Zeus busboard and I don't have any problems, FWIW.
Blingley
joshuagoran wrote:
I think Euro is a great way to start, since there are so many well supported options you can get started easily. Something like HexInverter's dotNET or other interpretation of 4U would open you up to much more other projects which can be difficult to fit in 3U/Euro.


At the moment, I'm siding towards making my own panels. The local hardware shop is fine cutting sheet aluminum to size, and I do have access to an electric drill with drill bits that can go through metal. (It was bought for some renovation about five years ago.) Not only does this save a bit on the costs of the panels, but also quite a bit on the postals for them. It might not look as pretty, but well. I have experience with basic metal/woodworks, so I'm pretty certain I can get it looking decent at least.

joshuagoran wrote:
Also, Euro is nice since you can pick up basic modules from Doepfer or similar to get started so you have something to use with your DIY stuff. I have a small half DIY/half bought Euro system and am constantly adding to the DIY end of it, but haven't bought any since my initial set.


I'm currently verging on the side of the Doepfer DIY-synth PCB. It seems like great value for money. Also doesn't seem like a particularly difficult assembly, which is a great thing for a beginner. It should serve as the basic setup to try further things with.

To go with that, I'll need a PSU and MIDI to CV.

felixer wrote:
ok, so you'll need a midi/usb interface if you want to play precise pitches on your vco's. this is the more expensive bit ... good tracking and clean sine cost money. intellijel dixie is nice in those respects but good-ol' a110 works too!


Is there anything I particularly need sines for? Other than actually getting FM sounds that do not pierce the eardrums? The DIY-PCB comes with VCO that makes saw/pulse.

felixer wrote:
be sure to get a good psu. pref lineair, not switching ....


joshuagoran wrote:
I personally use a cheap switching PSU with a Tiptop Zeus busboard and I don't have any problems, FWIW.


So.. Uh.. What/when/where/how/what/if/then/else/for/x=0/how? question

Can I get some recommendations on this. There is a DIY Kit from Doepfer on this. Would it be good, could I do with a cheaper option, wha when where?

felixer wrote:

listening to your music: you already have some sound sources.


Yeah, I do. I didn't really think about a "modular effect rack", or so. I considered it a bit now, and I still want a basic synthesizer setup. I'm mostly digital, and as you can hear: Most sounds that have delay-effects on them are samples. There is something about digital synthesis that doesn't sound good with delays, that is not present in analog synth sounds. Probably being too precise. Could be placebo. seriously, i just don't get it

Also, the act of patching sounds together ought to be much different from my current, really deliberate, manipulation of digital sound. I'm hoping to bring the sound design and musical side together a bit. Right now, if I have to write a new patch in the middle of composition, it really kills the workflow. Fresh perspective should help, and be fun.

The Plague Bearer does seem interesting, though. I'll look into it later on.

felixer wrote:
in fact i find 'weird bleepbloops' the easiest/cheapest to make.


It's a broad category. There's stuff like BFXR for sound generation digitally. In digital audio manipulation, granular synthesis is something I love. Hourglass is phenomenal. Fast Fourier Transform processing such as Mammut is also fun, though most results are unmusical.

felixer wrote:
modular is all about patching/combining things. no need to stop with the modules in your rack: everything but the kitchensink can be used as long as it has a cable/plug Mr. Green


Contact microphones allow using the kitchen sink, too!

felixer wrote:
have fun thumbs up


That I will. applause
felixer
sine is the most pure waveform. matter of taste whether you enjoy that. a resonating vcf usually produces a nice sine, but seldom tracks very far. intellijel µvcf and div6 filtare are exceptionally good in that respect, but not cheap .... but you don't NEED a sine: all depends on what you want to do ... personally i like my ringmod with at least 1 clean sine. often use one to fill out the low end for basses ... ymmv.
experiment! you can always add something later if the need arises. that's the beaty of a modular: start small and add as you go ...

the trickiest bit in analog is good tracking. if you go for 'weird soundfx' that's irrelevant so you can spend your money on other aspects ...

my fave psu is the doepfer a100psu2. diy version is the same thing with external wallwart for people who can't handle mains voltages. judge for yourself if you are capable/comfortable with that. not difficult, it's mainly a legal disclaimer thing, methinks ... advantage is that the transformer (which is big and gets warm/hot) is not in the case ... but some people just hate wallwarts ...
check around various threads for 'problems with psu' ... and if you want to expand with diy, better get something that has plenty current. using max current from a psu also means max heat and min stability ... don't be cheap here, it's the lifeblood of your system: garbage in = garbage out ...

placebo effect is real. but hey, it makes you feel good hihi and that def improves productivity, so talking about 'workflow' it's totally legit afaik 8_)
many people are into modulars simply because the computer/screen thing turns them off.

and yes: piezo's are wonderfull w00t seems like you have some preamps to built lol

check the diy section for some 'ghetto case' examples. def possible to get good results on a budget thumbs up my diy panels are plain alu with sharpy markings. good enough for me ... but the psu i got from doepfer Mr. Green
Blingley
felixer wrote:
But you don't NEED a sine.


Yeah, I know what they are and how partials / fourier analysis work. I was just wondering if there was something mysterious going on that I wasn't aware of.

felixer wrote:
experiment! you can always add something later if the need arises. that's the beaty of a modular: start small and add as you go ...


This was the plan. I was never thinking I could stop at the basic setup.

felixer wrote:
Better get something that has plenty current. using max current from a psu also means max heat and min stability ... don't be cheap here, it's the lifeblood of your system: garbage in = garbage out ...


I suppose I go for the doepfer DIY PSU then.

felixer wrote:
check the diy section for some 'ghetto case' examples. def possible to get good results on a budget thumbs up my diy panels are plain alu with sharpy markings. good enough for me ... but the psu i got from doepfer Mr. Green


An alternative to sharpies would be to use contact plastics, like those you use to cover books with, to cover the panel. Then use a box cutter/stanley knife to cutout the stuff, and then spray it.

In other words, sharpies it is.
felixer
Blingley wrote:
wondering if there was something mysterious going on

no! in the end it's all just plain physics and mathematics hihi but making a good sine with wide tracking is not that easy, so i becomes a kind of technical challenge. and very satisfying to hear that clean sound sweep around and land exactly on the dot applause otoh the old 'legendary' gear usually has appaling specs in terms of stability/signal-noise/'correct' waveforms etc. and great music was made nonetheless Mr. Green
lots of talk around here about 'the best' this or that, but in the end it's all very personal and you just work with what you've got. some would like you to believe that you need to spend thousends to get a decent system. this is simply not true. so go ahead and start off, even on a budget thumbs up golden times for modulars and diy ...
SAZ318
Dears,
I want to start with something affordable and instructive. I discovered the Korg Volca Modular as a very interesting and affordable possibility. There are some great you tube demos and reviews also.
Does anyone here have an opinion on this equipment, or recommend something else to start with, but that also I can grow with?

Thanks for your time and comments.
Stuart
EATyourGUITAR
there is nothing wrong with the volca. some people complain about the output volume being a little low. you might want to get used volca's. they are available for amazing prices.
SAZ318
Thanks.

Moderator edit: post Want To Buys in the Want to Buy forum please.
nostalghia
SAZ318 wrote:

I want to start with something affordable and instructive.

You might be interested in VCV Rack, free software simulation of a Eurorack modular system. Often recommended here as a great way to learn concepts, try out patches and find out if modular synths (or specific modules) are for you before spending a lot of money. Good sized library of modules, manual and user forum links are on the home page: https://vcvrack.com

If you want hardware only, many people start out with semi-modulars like the Moog Mother-32, or Make Noise 0-Coast (more expensive than the Volca, similar size but better construction, more well supported-check out the videos on YouTube from Make Noise and various users). These are often kept and integrated with a larger system when a beginner almost invariably gets the urge to expand later on. They use 3.5mm cables (Eurorack standard) rather than the tiny pin connectors of the Volca.
http://www.makenoisemusic.com/synthesizers/ohcoast
SAZ318
nostalghia wrote:

I want to start with something affordable and instructive.

You might be interested in VCV Rack, free software simulation of a Eurorack modular system.

Excellent suggestion. Thanks very much!
SAZ318
"often kept and integrated with a larger system...."

Does this mean that the volca cannot be integrated with other modules/components? I thought this would be possible, nevermind the mini pins for the moment.
It is just so affordable!

Thx.
gtrmstr53
I've been going down the eurorack DIY hole the last 1-2 years now, so I can't say much about PAiA etc. However, I can't plug thonk.co.uk enough. I've bought a lot of my DIY stuff through them, and it's always worked out great.

As for manufacturers to keep an eye on, I'd recommend Befaco and Bastl. I've built ~5 Befaco kits and 2 Bastl ones and they've always been well documented and fun builds. Both manufactures have a pretty complete lineup of modules. Bastl in particular is great at packing a lot of functionality into each module, which I appreciated when I was starting out. I would shy away from Bastl's wood panels though, as I hear they crack/break pretty easy.

Finally, it's worth mentioning Zlob's VnIcursal as it's probably the best bang for my buck module that I've built. It's 6 VCAs plus a mixer, so nothing flashy, but I built 2 and have my vanilla VCAs covered for a decent sized system.
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